Wednesday, May 22, 2002
Another scare editorial on cloning and genetic engineering from The Weekly Standard: Brave New Patents. The topic: patents that have been granted to U of Missouri researchers to clones of "mammals" - as written, including humans. As I have argued before, this is the real danger of the whole cloning business: not that we'll destroy democracy in an effort to cure disease or "improve" our children, but that we're moving towards the establishment of property rights in people.
Now, a few words of caution. First, you can have a patent on a process that is illegal. If I develop a new design for a nuclear weapon, I can patent that design, but I can't build the weapon. Second, no one is seriously worried about born human beings, with human capacities, walking around owned by someone else. We do still have the 13th Amendment to prevent actual slavery.
But there are real worries to have short of this. Let me outline one nightmare scenario that strikes me as entirely possible. Let's say it's theoretically possible to produce clones that are anencephalic - no brains - for the purpose of harvesting their organs. Let's say we think this is the most efficient and the safest way to produce organs for transplant. The clones would be brain-dead - they have no brains - so perhaps there's nothing so horrible about growing them. After all, we would hardly object if we could grow, say, a heart in a vat from adult tissue; why would be object to growing a whole body full of organs? It sounds horrible, true, but maybe we'd get over our qualms. But even if we get over the moral objections to growing such clones, how do we learn how to do it? Don't we have to do experiments, attempting to successfully clone anencephalic humans? And wouldn't some of these experiments fail, producing humans that are severely disabled - but not so lacking in human capacities that we are comfortable calling them mere organ farms? Who would be responsible for these poor creatures? They have no parents. They were never created to live. It seems far more likely that - at some stage in development, but well past the first two weeks that researchers keep citing as their only zone of interest - they would be destroyed. We are officially in Mengele territory with this scenario: experimenting on people and destroying them when we don't need them anymore. And it is an impossible-to-imagine scenario if there are no property rights in humans or potential humans.
This is why the slavery analogy is apt. In pre-modern slavery - until the 16th century, say - the moral assumption of slavers was that slaves are human, but humans without freedom. In a feudal world, where some are born to nobility and others to serfdom, this was a logical position that did not necessarily imply that slaves were mere property. The biblical codes that govern slavery contemplate it as a temporary condition with legal protections; the Aristotelian logic of "natural slavery" suggested that some people are just meant to be slaves, but never denied that they were people, any more than it denied that women were people, who were similarly "naturally" unfree. (I'm not trying to defend slavery in this period; it was a horrible institution. I am suggesting it was less radically evil than plantation slavery as it developed in the Americas.) By the generation of the Founding Fathers, it was clear - at least to enlightened opinion - that slavery was inherently unjust, because slaves are people and people have inalienable rights. But was not clear what to do about it, because the Founders respected the fact that the Southern plantation owners in good faith built up substantial capital in slaves, and that this could not simply be taken away. They had property rights in these people, and these had to be respected. The most common counsel was for benign neglect; the general assumption was that slavery would, eventually, wither away if its spread was restricted, and that the slaves would either be integrated into the American people as a whole (Washington's preference, and Franklin's) or granted their own country in the Americas or in Africa (the assumption of many other Founders). These predictions did not come to pass. And, as slavery spread, it became necessary to articulate a new ideology in its defense, one that justified treating people as property, and not merely as unfree dependents; not a feudal ideology but a radical racist one, that declared that blacks were not human. Such ideas were not invented by the Southern plantation owners, but were vigorously adopted by them, and gained a general currency that they had not had in earlier American or Western history. And these theories continued to poison Western thought down into the 20th century, and possibly into the 21st.
There is a real danger of this happening to us with respect to our children. As the family decomposes as a natural institution, there is a real danger that children come to be seen as some amalgam of an adult human and a species of property, and the younger they are the more like property they will seem. We have seen how the assertion of abortion rights has radicalized the abortion debate. If a woman has a right to an abortion, that easily becomes a right to a dead child, an assertion that a child - at least until birth but, if Peter Singer has his way, well beyond - is mere property. On the opposing end, it is assumed that the only way to refute this is to assert that a zygote is a rights-bearing human being equal to a full-grown child, an assertion that flies in the face of the biological facts as well as common sense. (None of the people who believe this, for example, think that every miscarriage should result in a homicide investigation, but that is the logical implication of their belief.) And because the opposition is grounded in a kind of fundamentalism - whether religious or no - that lacks general support, the argument that a fetus is the mother's property continues to gain ground. There is the potential for another turn of the ratchet with the cloning debate, as we ignore the precedent that we set when we say that a research laboratory can own an entity that will, in the proper environment, become a child.
This is what the cloning debate is about: whether, at any stage in development, a human being or potential human being can be property. This is why research cloning is more disturbing than reproductive cloning; reproductive cloning is arguably analogous to IVF and egg-donation and other efforts by parents to mimic the process of reproduction. Reproductive cloning should be illegal now because it is too dangerous, but it is not obvious to me that it should always be illegal because it is inherently immoral. But research cloning, if it is to take place, has got to be regulated such that at minimum it is impossible to have a property interest in a human clone. If that chills research, so be it. The burden is on the researchers to articulate a regulatory framework that avoids the Mengele scenarios now, before a property interest in humans develops that requires, if not the violence of the Civil War, nonetheless vast efforts to uproot, efforts that we as a society may, unfortunately, not be up to exerting.
Here are a few other links to articles about the U of Missouri patent, from MSNBC, Wired, The Washington Times, The Washington Post and PNN-Online. One thing that I think is notable about the quotes from the pro-cloning Senators is that they have not thought about the questions that the anti-cloning forces are raising. That's reason enough to be skeptical of their position. I want to see research to cure genetic diseases - as well as Parkinsons, spinal-cord injuries, etc. I think such research is a moral imperative. But it is also a moral imperative to oppose the ownership of people. If the pro-cloning forces want to advance their research agenda, they should be articulating a scheme of regulations to prevent the nightmare scenarios. They are not doing that. We shouldn't allow cloning until they do.